It’s so good to know that people change and evolve over time.
In my graduate classes, we talk often about the capacity to change and grow. That’s a tenet of social work, that people can reach self-actualization – their full potential. We have to believe that people can do this for society to move forward.
But it’s one thing to read about it in a textbook and another thing entirely to see it in yourself or someone really close to you.
For the past few days, most discerning eyes and ears in this country have been riveted to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the nine justices have been hearing arguments on two cases regarding who has the ability legally to get married in this country. On Tuesday, the justices heard arguments about the California law, Proposition 8, that disallows gays and lesbians from marrying. On Wednesday, it was the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a 1990s-era law that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Talk of this case is everywhere you turn – newspapers, broadcast news, magazines, sitcoms, dramas, movies, the salon, the teachers’ lounge. You can’t get away from it.
So on Tuesday, as my 10-year-old was eating breakfast, he watched as talking heads on the Today show discussed what might or might not happen at the Supreme Court.
“That’s so dumb,” he said between bites of his Nutella waffle. “People should be able to get married.”
“Yep,” I said. “I think people should be able to marry whomever they fall in love with, just like your dad and I did.”
But as I said those words, it hit me that I hadn’t always held such a clear-cut opinion on the matter. For years, I just didn’t think about it one way or the other.
I can so clearly see myself at about 4, following my pregnant mother through the short aisles of a little family-owned grocery in my hometown. I don’t know what possessed me, but as we neared the butcher counter at the back of the store, I asked really loudly, “Mom, can two girls get married to each other?”
My mom froze, then continued walking and said, “No.” She said it in such a tone that I knew better than to ask why. So I didn’t.
And truthfully, I didn’t think about it again until I was an adult – and then only because of DOMA.
Yet that piece of legislation, flawed as it is, opened my eyes to those around me who couldn’t lawfully marry their true loves because they happened to be the same gender – a reporter at my newspaper, a photographer I knew, a shoestring relative, a neighbor.
Each time I learned another person I knew was enduring this systemic discrimination, my view of marriage came into sharper focus, like my worldview was being refracted.
I wonder if that’s how it happened for my dad.
See, on Tuesday night, he and I sat next to each other at a concert at my kids’ high school. As the orchestra left the stage and the choir prepared to take it, we made idle conversation. In time, of course, it turned to the topic before the Supreme Court.
My 73-year-old dad said the arguments against allowing gay people to marry are unfounded.
“It’s just cultural,” he said. “They say marriage is between one man and one woman. But in other countries, you can have one man and four women. “
He’s got a point. And he made another cogent one when he said that many of those who oppose same-sex marriage are basing their logic on the Bible and religious teachings, nothing else. They need to be honest about it, he said.
But what a difference 25 years makes. My dad, while never homophobic, didn’t exactly preach marriage for all when he was raising his kids. I’m not sure he personally knew anyone who was out of the closet until he was in his 40s or 50s.
Attitudes change when the abstract becomes concrete, though. It’s easy to dismiss people en masse but less so when you work with them and go to church with them and sit on the sidelines of soccer games with them.
These days, almost every heterosexual I know has a friend or family member who is homosexual. The times are changing.
And my dad’s viewpoint has changed, too. A few weeks back, he and my mom met an old friend one Sunday at a funky Kansas City brunch joint. Their friend was in town visiting her son and his partner, who live around the corner from the restaurant. Mom and Dad told me all about the son’s gorgeous old rehabbed house, his success as a teacher, the ginormous dogs he and his partner have.
They might as well have been talking about meeting anyone for lunch, which is as it should be. The times are changing. And they’re changing fast.
That’s what dad said as the lights went down before the choir took the stage for its performance.
“The main reason these guys give for not allowing gays and lesbians to marry is that it’s a change that’s happening too quickly,” he said. “But doesn’t that define conservatism – not wanting any change to happen?
“It’s happening,” he said.
It’s about time.
Man, am I ever glad that Snowmageddon didn’t happen LAST week.
That’s because on Valentine’s Day, fourth graders from Bryant Elementary School in Independence took Jefferson City by another kind of storm.
Thanks to all the generous folks who donated money, time and energy, fourth-grade parents raised enough funds to rent a charter bus (complete with a bathroom and DVD player!) from Arrow Stage Lines, buy each fourth grader a screen-printed T-shirt to wear to the capitol, buy snacks for the trip, purchase each child a souvenir from the capitol and treat each of the 29 students who made the trip to a buffet dinner on the way home.
In fact, let me just stop right here and say thanks to the Bryant parents who made the trip happen – Melissa, Stefania, Babette, Rod, Cody, Kristen, Erica, Frances – as well as Corporate Copy Print, Allen’s Banquet Hall, the Independence School District Foundation, Reps. Ira Anders and John Mayfield and the many other parents who allowed their kiddos to make the trip.
I couldn’t be prouder of this community of parents and their supporters, who demonstrated true community organizing as they planned this trip. It was textbook, just like something I’d learn in one of my social work classes.
In late December, parents met to decide how to solve their problem: They wanted their kids to visit the capitol, but the school said the trip wasn’t possible this year. Parents decided they wanted to see what they could do to make the trip a reality.
A meeting in early January attracted more parents and sealed the deal – the trip would happen if parents could just come up with the more than $1,000 needed to rent the bus. Suddenly, every parent at the meeting mobilized. Fund-raising ideas flew around the room, mingling with suggestions of how to get the word out.
Within a week, the rummage sale was on. Division of labor occurred organically, with parents taking on jobs that matched their strengths. It was a marvel to behold.
And at the end of a very long day, the parents had enough money to give those kids the best trip ever.
I’m not particularly prone to belief in the extraordinary, but this trip was meant to be. The weather was extra-perfect for February. Everyone – more than 50 people – was on time. We made it to Jeff without any hitches and made every tour with ease.
The kiddos met three local state representatives – Rep. Noel Torpey met them at lunch – and their Supreme Court tour guide, John Constance, told them he’s a product of the Independence School District, sewing that all-important seed of possibility in the young minds.
On the way home, we stopped in Columbia at a huge Chinese buffet restaurant that will never be the same.
I’m pretty sure each one of the 29 kids used the bathroom on the bus at least twice.
By the time we rolled up in front of Bryant, it was after 8 p.m. The kids and parents quickly dispersed to enjoy the rest of the President’s Day break, and my husband, 10-year-old and I headed for home. I asked our son if he’d had a good day.
“It was the best day of my life,” he said, “next to the day I was born.”
That’s pretty darn cool.
I have this dream.
It started two years ago, when my niece’s fourth-grade class at Bryant Elementary School in Independence did not make the trip to Jefferson City as the capstone of a months-long lesson about Missouri history.
I don’t remember the reasons Maureen’s class didn’t make the mostly annual sojourn, just that the kiddos were sorely disappointed. And so were their parents, who didn’t realize the trip was a no-go until too late to do anything about it. My sister and brother-in-law took Maureen to Jefferson City themselves that summer.
My dream grew in intensity last August, when my youngest child entered fourth grade. He’d looked toward the school year with anticipation after the grade ahead of him resumed the annual Jeff trip in May 2012.
And when I and other parents were told early last semester that the fourth grade once again likely wouldn’t go to the state’s capital city – this time because the trip would take away from prepping for the state assessments – my dream intensified, nagging, pushing through my other thoughts, needling me like a splinter stuck in my sock during a 5K.
My dream, folks, is that all Independence fourth graders get the chance to journey to the center of our great state for their first up-close glimpse of participatory government.
On the surface, maybe, it seems frivolous. What’s the big deal about taking a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds to Jefferson City? It means waking up before the chickens to get your kid to school to catch the bus, sack lunch in tow. It means a good three hours on a bus with a bunch of exuberant kids who know every line to several episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. It means giving up a day of your own time to go see things you (hopefully) learned about years ago.
Yep, the fourth-grade trip to Jeff is all those things. But it’s also this: The chance to make a favorable impression on young minds still idealistic enough to believe that this great democratic experiment we have going in the United States is working.
The trip to Jefferson City offers a chance for jaded adults to see awe and wonder again as the children gaze upward at the beautiful rotunda of the capitol or look down upon the General Assembly as members bustle in and out of chambers, going about their work; as they listen to the stories of how one governor’s wife saved the executive mansion; as they think that they, too, could one day, if they worked hard enough, earn a seat on the state’s highest court.
But more than that, it’s a chance for us as adults to model for our children the importance of civic duty – of knowing who represents our voices in government, of speaking up when we don’t agree, of learning about how our country works.
This is our job. If we don’t teach them, who will?
Back to my dream. From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Allen’s Banquet Hall at 11330 E. Truman Road in Independence, a bunch of parents who share my dream are mounting a huge rummage sale to raise money to pay for their fourth graders to make that trip.
This year, it’s one school.
My dream? Next year, all 18 of them.
Last year, in an effort to make the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday count for something more than mid-January sales, the hubs, kids and I spent a few hours volunteering at Harvesters, the food bank. After a short presentation about food insecurity, we went to work boxing up food that would be delivered to food pantries.
Hey, we’re not saints, people. It’s a national initiative called the Day of Service. You’re supposed to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive, step outside your comfort zone and work to effect change in your community. Click here for more info.
My kids loved it, and the experience sort of led them to volunteer in similar areas over the last year. So this year, as the holiday approaches, they said they’d like to go back to Harvesters.
Only Harvesters told me today that it’s too late to sign up to volunteer there on Jan. 21. They’re fully booked, they said, but we could come back another day.
Well, we don’t have another weekday. So we’re looking for something else meaningful to do that day to commemorate Dr. King’s work and to expand our knowledge of the needs in our community. And we’re looking for suggestions.
If you’ve got some ideas — serious ones, please — leave them at the bottom of this post. I’ll let you know later this month what we end up doing.
And if you haven’t already, consider marking MLK Day yourself by doing something for others.
So I’m in the throes of my yearly panic also known as “holiday shopping” when I hear on the morning news that Pizza Hut has come out with a fragrance.
Now, some lucky gift recipients on my list will be receiving some cologne or eau de parfum, to be sure.
But do I really want to give them something that will make them reek like they just got finished working an 11-to-7 at a fast-food pizza chain? That’s not exactly the mood I’m looking to evoke.
When I was a kid, my dad regularly gave my mom fancy perfumes for gift-giving occasions. She had a dresser-top full of luscious scents with exotic names like Opium and White Shoulders and Paloma Picasso. She had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 amongst the lovelies on her dresser, and each day that I was in high school, I spritzed something precious and expensive-smelling on my pulse points before I headed out the door.
To me, receiving expensive perfume reeks of specialness and decadence. So no. I will not be purchasing anything that makes anyone smell like mass-produced pizza.
Besides, there are so many choices nowadays. Have you been in the cosmetics department of any department store lately? Or how about an airport duty-free shop?
The choices are many, however, but the quality is meh. I mean, these days anyone can have a fragrance named after them.
Seriously. Consider an article I read last week in The New York Times. There, big and bold on page E3 of the Thursday Styles section, was a photo of Nicole Polizzi hawking her signature scent at a New York boutique.
That’s right, folks. Snooki has a scent.
Guess who else has a fragrance bottled up? Lady Gaga. I’m thinking there might be a bit of a bacon bouquet to that one. And who knows what else.
How about Nicki Minaj? You wanna buy a perfume with her name on it? I’m not sure what that one smells like.
Kat Von D, the tattoo artist, has her own fragrance. Hmmmm. So does Paris Hilton.
Are these ladies known for their nice scents?
Even Ke$ha has her own perfume. It’s named after another word for a female dog. Nice. I’ll bet it smells like a meth lab.
Why can’t George Clooney put his name on a cologne? Or get behind a pefume, like his buddy Brad Pitt is for Chanel?
These second-rate celebs think slapping their names on fragrances is the next step in their branding scheme. Consider Ms. Polizzi’s assessment of her fragrance, as reported in that New York Times story: “[Snooki] said her new scent has notes like apple blossom and so-called cashmere woods, ‘which I thought sounded classy.’ “
That’s “classy” with a “K.”
I’ve been feeling my age lately.
I know, I know. I’ve written about this before. Same story, different issue.
But this time, I’m walking around on a cranky knee, watching my 16-year-old son make mature decisions regarding his future, marveling at my 15-year-old daughter fixing a meal for her younger brother, beaming as my 10-year-old readies himself for his part in the chorus of a high school musical.
Some days, the hubs and I actually have time alone before the sun goes down because the three kids are busy with their own lives, which are becoming increasingly more tangential, less congruent, to ours.
Time marches on.
And then in the mail the other day arrived a letter from my aunt.
That right there was unusual – getting an actual letter instead of an e-mail? How old school.
And what was inside was even more so. My sweet aunt – my dad’s sister – had photocopied some letters her father wrote her mother before the two ever married, when they were just a couple of crazy 20-somethings. A note was attached: “Hope you can read this letter from Navy to Loie,” wrote Aunt Mimi. “Some things are different in this century and some are the same.”
Hmmm, I thought. Intriguing.
The date on the first letter was Richmond, Calif., July 19, 1933.
Now, I had a bit of an idea what this was about. When I was a high school sophomore, I had to write an oral history on an older adult. Lucky for me, my paternal grandparents were visiting my southeast Missouri hometown for the Christmas holidays. I asked my grandpa if he’d let me interview him, and he agreed. We spent several hours talking, me with pen and notebook in hand, my grandpa with an ornery look in his eye. Sometimes during the interview, I wondered if he were pulling my leg with his stories.
Because I’d never in my 16 years heard the stories he told: Of his days in the U.S. Navy in the early 1920s, picking up dead soldiers from Central America, spending time in port in San Diego, going to college as an “older man” in his mid-20s, which earned him the nickname “Navy.”
College is where he met my grandmother, Lois. She was six years his junior and a serious Park College coed. He tried for years to woo her, but she was a hard sell. She had goals – to become a teacher – and she didn’t want some romancer to get in her way. But a few years after the stock market crash of 1929, she had to leave Park and return to Marceline to find a teaching job so she could help her family make ends meet.
Grandpa, an independent man by then, paid his own pay to college and finished in about three years, including time spent at the teachers’ college in Warrensburg. But he couldn’t find a job after graduation, which frustrated him. So he took his money, bought some camping gear and a good pair of goggles, bade his poor mother adieu and hopped a freight train heading west.
So that’s the back story on those letters. By the time I heard that story, my grandpa was 78. He died a year later. I haven’t heard his voice in 27 years. Until, that is, I read the letters my aunt mailed me.
“Procrastination is the thief of time,” began a letter dated July 24, 1933 from Bakersfield, Calif.
I could just hear my grandpa deliver that truism. He had a way with words – I have a vivid memory of a hot August day in 1977. I was laid up with a toothache on the couch at my grandparents’ house. Everyone else had gone shopping for new school clothes, but I couldn’t. Grandpa volunteered to stay home with me.
I was watching something on TV when Walter Cronkite broke in with a special report: Elvis Presley had been found dead in his Memphis home. Elvis. Dead.
I gaped at the TV, but my grandpa just kept on playing solitaire and making a tsk-tsk sound. “It’s about time,” was all he said.
My dad inherited that trait, and these letters reminded me of that.
In my grandfather’s neat handwriting, the letters detailed for Loie his trip west, the beautiful scenery he saw – mountains, rivers, valleys, gorges – and the desperation he encountered in Hoovervilles around the west, families begging for food, educated men working menial jobs. My grandpa chose the transient life for a bit, but for others he encountered it was the only way to survive. The experience cemented my grandfather’s views for the remainder of his life.
But what my aunt was talking about, her cryptic words about some things never changing, was the fact that my grandfather invited my grandmother to join him in the hobo life, if only for a little while.
What? They weren’t even married, my mind screamed. Grandpa and Grandma thinking about…shacking? And he wrote it down?
“How would you like to be out with me for say – one week?” he wrote. “I have run across many girls and women on the road. They have quite a time of it.”
Hmmm. What did he mean? Do I want to know?
Needless to say, Loie didn’t hit the road with Navy that summer. She was too practical. And she didn’t want to lose her job. They didn’t marry for another two years, mainly because Loie had a good-paying teaching job, making more than Navy did as a teacher. And she knew that as soon as she married she’d have to quit so a man could have her job – married women didn’t need to work.
So Loie stayed single until her salary fell below Navy’s.
The rest…well, I know most of those details. But these letters my aunt sent gave me a glimpse into the lives of two young people whom I never met until they were well past middle age. I thought I knew them so well, but suddenly, they’re mysterious strangers.
And like that, my 44 years seem yet a blip in history. And I don’t feel so old.
A week or so ago, Maggie and I were in a take-out pizza joint on a Friday night.
It was crazy busy, and the place was pretty small. We queued to order our pepperoni pie, then waited against the back windows.
Pretty soon the door opened, and a couple walked in. They looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think much of it.
Then Maggie pinched my arm and whispered in my ear that the couple who’d just entered the joint was a former coach of hers and his wife.
Ahhh. I looked anew at the woman, who seemed to have put on a few pounds since the last time I saw her courtside. Her husband’s hair had grayed noticeably. I smirked.
Maggie shot me a sideways glance but didn’t say anything.
Pretty soon, a teen behind the counter called our name, and we picked up the pizza and headed for the door. Just as we got there, the coaching couple turned around and smiled, all Stepford-like.
“Hi, Maggie!” they said brightly.
Bless her heart, my girl has raisings. She smiled and said hello.
I, on the other hand, felt that familiar motherly indignation rise within me. All I could muster was a glare, which probably looked more like a squint since I wasn’t wearing my glasses.
Out in the parking lot, I attempted casual conversation with Maggie.
“Man, she looked fat, didn’t she?” I asked. “Didn’t she look fat?”
Maggie just shrugged and smiled, a little patronizingly, I thought.
“Mom,” she said, “you need to let it go.”
“It” was an incident several years ago where the pizza-ordering fatties – back then considerably more svelte but snotty just the same – had conspired to kick my daughter off a sports team so their little darling could take her place.
But no one bothered to tell us that our girl wasn’t on the team until the season began and games started. Then, and only then, did we find out she had lost her spot on the team.
She cried. She cried and cried and wondered why she wasn’t good enough to play on the team she’d been on for several seasons. We had no reason to give, except that that the coach’s kid gets preference.
Then, adding insult, her new team had to play her old team once or twice a season. And the old teammates she’d joked around with treated her badly, led by the snarky mean girl who took her spot.
I could barely watch when Maggie’s new team played her old. I was so angry, I clinched my teeth until my temples ached.
I was proud of the way Maggie made the best of a sad situation and made better friends on her new team, full of girls she’ll play with in high school. I even softened toward the girls on the other team, who I reasoned couldn’t help being the way they were if their parents were so devious they’d hurt an 11-year-old girl to further their own child’s fortunes.
But when it came to the parents, forget it. I give them no quarter.
I’m not proud that I can’t forgive and forget. I’m all the time preaching that the past is the past, that folks need to build some bridges and get over “it.”
Yet I can’t. I can’t in this instance or a few others where adults intentionally wronged my kiddos.
Mess with me, I can eventually give you a bye.
But mess with my kids, and you’re dead to me.
So on Sunday, the hubs and I went to Trader Joe’s for the first time.
Yes, yes, people. I know the Kansas City stores have been open for more than a year. But in our defense, we were waiting until the crowds died down.
And truthfully, I forgot about Trader Joe’s until our recent family vacation in California, where the store is downright ubiquitous. Then I remembered.
On Sunday, we decided the state fair was too far to go, but a visit to the mecca that is Trader Joe’s would fulfill our need to browse.
Apparently, Trader Joe’s is like crack for some people. Before it landed in Kansas City, folks were frequently driving four hours to St. Louis to stock up on all sorts of goodies, like the cheap wine and ginger cookies.
I’m assuming the dyed-in-the-wool Trader Joe-types were not shopping at the Ward Parkway store on Sunday. The earnest-looking organic-seeking bourgeoisie the hubs and I saw shopping there were newer converts, I’m sure of it. You could tell just by looking at them, kind of the way you can smell the difference between the nouveau riche and old money.
I mean, these folks looked like they were trying a little too hard to be laid back.
Women in Merrell shoes and North Face après-hiking attire yet sporting fully made-up faces perused the produce section and aisles full of semi-prepared food. They paused artfully before the organic toiletries, glancing over their shoulders to see if anyone was noticing them. Their carts held previously-used Trader Joe’s cloth grocery sacks, which screamed, “I’m so cool I call this place ‘T.J.’s.”
The dudes weren’t much better, but they looked mostly like they were accompanying their North Face wives and girlfriends.
Yes, I was feeling a little bit unnerved and like I just wasn’t a part of this club and never would be – a not-uncommon feeling for yours truly. Matt, however, was oblivious, oohing and ahhing over the salmon selection and the truly staggering wine department.
Then we turned our cart up the peanut butter aisle. I was trying to keep to the edges, getting my bearings and steering clear of the regulars, who seemed to know where everything is. But I leaned in to look at the Nutella facsimile, to see if it were any cheaper than the one I can pick up at World Market. Just then, a Merrell-shoe-wearing Baby Boomer with chic white hair tooled her cart toward me.
I smiled as our carts almost collided and said, “I’m sorry if I’m in your way.”
She stared back, then said, “You won’t be if you keep moving.” And she kept moving, so I pushed my cart out of the way.
I didn’t say anything, just kept moving down the aisle. I mean, I’m not a member of this club. I kept going, turning into the next aisle. People shoved me aside to get to their favorite frozen organic black-bean-and-lentil soup with roasted red peppers. I stopped to let them, then trudged along, finding a bag of frozen berries I could use.
So I had heard that the Trader Joe’s employees were uber-friendly, but I didn’t particularly witness that. In fact, the women working back by the coffee looked like they were waiting to have root canals. Excited they weren’t. Then again, maybe they were tired of dealing with the stuck-up clientele who seemed to think that just because they eat organic, their you-know-what doesn’t stink.
But all that aside, the hubs and I managed to spend a fair amount on Two-Buck Chuck, ahi tuna steaks and kale, among other necessities.
I’m sure the store might be a different place on a weekday, when those who want to see and be seen are busy working or sleeping or what have you. I longed to see someone who looked like they’d just rolled out of bed at 3 p.m. on a Sunday, threw on some Chiefs PJ pants and flip flops, cursorily combed their hair, swigged some mouthwash and made a run for some snickerdoodles.
But alas, Dorothy. I wasn’t in Independence anymore.
Oh, well, T.J.s. We’ll be back, no doubt. For the wine, if nothing else. And we will be wearing Merrells.
For some reason, I think my family and I should pile into the Suburban and head for the state fair on Sunday.
I won’t be able to eat anything – at least without feeling guilty, since I’m perpetually counting calories. We’re not big monster truck or rodeo fans, and we have not grown the biggest tomato or potato or pumpkin or what have you. Our cherry tomato plants aren’t even bearing fruit.
I just don’t want school to start.
I don’t want it to start because we’ll have to roll out of bed at 0-dark-hundred every morning to get kids up and out the door to early-morning band. I don’t want it to start because I don’t want to go back to my graduate classes and papers and tests and bullshitting. I don’t want it to start because I want more summer.
But mainly, I don’t want it to start because I want life to slow down.
Why does it move so quickly? Did it always? Did my parents feel this way when they were raising three kids in a small southern Missouri town? Or is this a symptom of living in “the city,” as Mom and Dad call it?
Maybe it’s the latter. When I was growing up, we had to drive at least 30 minutes to get to a sizable shopping area. You didn’t just run out to Target if you needed pantyhose. We planned our trips, which meant we had more free time at home.
I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but I don’t remember feeling perpetually rushed.
If I had to be at school early, it only took me five minutes to get there. It only took five minutes to get just about anywhere in our little town – although my dad would say it really took normal drivers longer. I just drove too fast. Now that I’m the parent of a teen-age driver, I’m certain he’s correct.
I have so many closets to clean out during these last waning days of summer vacation, but I find that inertia has overtaken me. I just want to sit around on the sectional and watch “Phineas and Ferb” with the kids. Is that so wrong?
I don’t want to live in a small town again, I just want the lifestyle. How do I get it?
And so finally, we have a 16 year old in the house, homies.
But we don’t gotta driver. What up with that?
Oh, sorry for the gangster-wannabe talk. I’ve been spending a lot of time with suburban white teens.
So anyway, the hubs and I hated to admit it, but we were looking forward to having a third driver in the family. We weren’t getting a third car, mind you, because that would be an entitlement, and we’re all about earning the finer things in life and possibly paying for them yourself. Plus, we just didn’t have the extra scratch, me being an unemployed graduate student and all. But we were anxiously awaiting having another family driver to help schlep around the rest of the brood.
The fateful day in June was fast approaching. Our potential driver had logged many hours behind the wheel with either his devil-may-care dad or his neurotic-white-knuckle-hyperventilating mom supervising.
Driver’ ed, check.
Night driving, check.
Parallel parking practice, check.
School got out in the middle of May, and our boy was cruising toward his 16th birthday on autopilot.
And then, one morning two days after school ended, I happened to come home from the YMCA to find my 15-year-old nephew literally wringing his hands on the sidewalk in front of his house. (Perhaps you recall that both my sisters and my parents live on our block.)
I got out of the car and approached him, asking him what was wrong.
“Nothing,” he said. “Well…’’
He looked toward the north end of our block. I did, too, in time to see a blue Ford van turn the corner from the west. It was my sister’s van. But she was at work. And her husband was on a business trip to Atlanta.
“Honey,” I said, “that’s weird. Who’s driving your mom’s van?”
I stood in the middle of the street, looking toward the van, which crept ever more slowly down the street. And that’s when I had my out-of-body experience. It’s like I was up above, looking down as the scene unfolded. I saw me standing there, head cocked slightly to the left, as my brain caught up with what my eyes were seeing.
“I told them not to do it,” my nephew moaned.
Without my glasses, it was blurry, but I could make out the face of…my unlicensed 15-year-old son and his almost-13-year-old male cousin, who was grinning sheepishly. My son slowly but expertly guided the van into my sister’s driveway.
The van sat idle. No one inside moved. Finally, my younger nephew rolled down the passenger window, and that’s when I morphed into White Trash Mommy and yelled, “Get your asses out of that van!”
Is it any wonder the conservative neighbors next door to my sister’s house despise our family?
My younger nephew climbed out of the van and began slinking across the yard toward his house. “And don’t think I’m not telling your mom, Buddy!” I called to him.
My own progeny got out of the van and walked toward me, his hand outstretched. In it lay his driver’s permit.
I was seething but trying to remain calm. What would Jim Fay do? I kept asking myself. Love and logic. Love and logic. Do not threaten to kill him.
I held out my cell phone. “I should call the cops RIGHT NOW!” I hissed, aware now that the conservative neighbors’ windows were open, enjoying the fresh late-spring air. “Do you know how many laws you just broke?”
My son just looked at me. I realized I needed more information.
“OK,” I said. “What were you doing? Where were you going?”
He looked over at my older nephew, the one whose van my son had just hijacked.
“Um,” he said, “um, Wendy’s. We were hungry.”
I gazed blankly at him. “Wendy’s? Wendy’s? The Wendy’s that’s two blocks from here?” I said, pointing north. “Why, in Christ’s name, didn’t you just walk?”
He scuffed his shoe on the driveway. “We thought we’d get in trouble.”
“But you didn’t think STEALING a car would get you in trouble?” I slapped my hand to my forehead.
He just looked at me.
Turns out, my boy and his two teen cousins were hanging and decided they were starving. And between the three kitchens they had access to, apparently there was no food. So the nephew whose mom owns the blue van jokingly says they could drive to Wendy’s and get some food. He even grabs the spare keys. But then his Catholic guilt got the best of him, and he reneged.
Not so for his two cousins, who decided that because they’re Methodist, they don’t answer to the Catholic guilt and could go to Wendy’s anyway. So the Catholic nephew, while not condoning the trip, forked over some cash for them to buy him a burger.
And then I came home early. And the nephew left behind called the other two and reported that, and they left Wendy’s, dropping F-bombs all the way, without any food.
Not to brag, but I am proud of myself for staying calm. I knew that how I handled this was setting a precedent and that whatever consequence I handed down needed to be significant. So I bought some time.
“I’m taking your permit right now,” I said to my son, “and there’s going to be a consequence. But I’m not sure what. I’ll have to let you know after I talk to your dad.”
Man, for the next several hours, I had on my hands two of the most compliant teenage boys EVER. I could have asked them to do anything – wear a tutu, paint the house, pick up dog poop – and they’d have been happy to do it.
That night, after we’d finished dinner and the kids were getting ready for bed, I found my hubs in his home office and told him we needed to talk. I asked him to listen to everything I had to say before he asked any questions. And then I told him the story from beginning to end.
He was silent. Seething. I could see it in the set of his jaw. And then finally, he spoke. Of disappointment and sadness. Of mistakes that could have been serious. Of what the incident bodes for the future. Of our son waiting years before he could take his driving test.
But he never said a thing about his past. Or mine. Or his mother’s.
I cleared my throat. “I’m not 100 percent on this, but I’m pretty certain your mother took her brother’s car out for a joyride before she could legally drive,” I said.
He just looked at me. “So you see,” I said, “all this comes from your side of the family.”
He didn’t exactly think that was funny.
But we found out, as the story slowly leaked out, that most folks we know have a similar tale to tell – even our kindly pediatrician.
In the end, we settled on making the boy wait a month after his birthday before taking his driving test. And he has to make restitution to his aunt and uncle. This he’ll do by helping them work in their yard and around their house.
Some said the punishment wasn’t harsh enough. But my husband and I tend to think that people can learn from their mistakes and that the punishment shouldn’t be so severe that it overshadows the lesson.
And besides, I’m pretty sure the worst punishment was the dread our son felt as he turned that corner and saw his mother standing in the middle of the street, watching as he drove the “borrowed” van down the street.